Vigilance Urged to Improve Security at Big Venues

July 31, 2006
From bag searches to restricted areas, program shares tips on securing stadiums and arenas

Jul. 28--LINCOLN -- Directing traffic. Taking tickets. Scanning the crowds for potential terrorists.

Each game day, people in charge of Nebraska's sports stadiums and arenas perform a logistical feat, shuttling tens of thousands in and out of their facilities within a matter of hours.

Since the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, however, their jobs have taken on an added dimension. Stadiums, like concert halls, shopping malls, schools and other places where people gather, are viewed as "soft" targets attractive to terrorists.

Nebraskans must remain vigilant to prevent terrorist attacks at such locations, warned an expert brought to Lincoln by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security.

"It can happen here," said William White, a former U.S. Navy SEAL who was teaching classes this week on how to prevent and detect potential attacks.

"Everyone is a potential target," he said. "If you're in a place with other Americans, you're a target."

About 100 people from across the state enrolled in the classes.

The classes were provided by Homeland Security as part of a nationwide awareness effort aimed at the private sector, said Greg Hollingsead, protective security adviser for the agency's four-state Omaha district.

"More than 85 percent of the critical infrastructure in this country is owned by the private sector," he said.

Shea Degan, president of an Omaha company that provides security for the College World Series and the Holland Performing Arts Center, said people shouldn't be afraid to attend a concert or a ballgame.

But they shouldn't be complacent, either.

"Terrorism threats are a lot more prevalent than people think," he said.

White, who emphasized home-grown terrorists as well as radical Islamic groups like al-Qaida, said facilities staffers should be watchful for people who appear to be conducting surveillance of their buildings, and they should not be reluctant to report suspicious activity.

He also recommended that facilities staffs conduct their own surveillance to identify potentially vulnerable spots.

White described relatively simple steps for deterring terrorists.

Visitor identification badges and "restricted access" signs prevent intruders from blending in at schools. Fences and barricades can prevent a person or vehicle carrying a bomb from entering a building. A simple "can I help you?" spoken to someone who's been lingering suspiciously long can be enough to make him or her go elsewhere.

Many of the steps White suggested are among those in place at Lincoln's Memorial Stadium, where more than 76,000 people gather on Husker football game days. University of Nebraska-Lincoln spokeswoman Meg Lauerman said the university strives to be a leader in security precautions for the stadium.

Tom Lorenz, general manager of Lincoln's Pershing Auditorium, said one growing difficulty is that the public is increasingly unwilling to accept inconveniences, such as bag searches.

"There's been a drop-off in public acceptance of bag searches," he said. "It's kind of a constant battle to keep that level up."

He said his staff often conducts the searches under the guise of looking for outside food and beverages, which are barred from Pershing.

"You get used to looking for people doing strange and suspicious things," he said.

Degan said his College World Series staff encountered some grousing this year about a new policy that attendees could not leave their unattended bags at the stadium entrance. Bags are not allowed to be taken into the stadium. The problems subsided, however, after people became aware of the new policy.

"You just don't think anything is going to happen out here -- but you can't think that way anymore," said Fred Hansen, superintendent at Lyons-Decatur Northeast Schools.